New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was swamped by media when he entered the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
By James M. Perry For the Post-Gazette
Christopher J. Christie, the governor of New Jersey, is loud, short-tempered and big.
He may be, in fact, the biggest big-time politician since William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States, who topped out at about 340 pounds in his final days on the job.
Taft was so big they had to install a special bathtub in the White House just for him. You can find a wonderful grainy old photo on the Internet with four workmen comfortably sitting in it. I'm not sure just how big Chris Christie is, but he looks as if he might hover around 300 pounds.
People made jokes about how big Taft was. Typical was one uttered by Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer. "Taft," the justice said, "is the politest man in Washington. The other day he gave up his seat in the street car to three ladies." They make jokes about Mr. Christie's weight, too. "You talk about tons of fun," David Letterman said. Former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine said Mr. Christie "threw his weight around" to avoid being issued traffic tickets. Not very good, but they keep trying.
But what Mr. Christie, the keynote speaker at the GOP convention tonight, has going for him is that he appears to be the real thing, unlike the rest of those trim, carefully programmed politicians who will come and go at both conventions. Unlike Taft, who was a patrician member of the Taft family from Cincinnati, Mr. Christie is a Jersey boy, born and reared by middle-class parents in Essex County in the northeastern corner of the state. I suspect that most people in Jersey don't really care that he's fat.
It's always been difficult to discover who our American politicians, deep down, really were. George Washington did his best to cover up the fact that sometimes he was a pretty funny guy. Historians have been trying to figure out who he really was ever since. In our own time, Ronald Reagan did the opposite -- he liked to play the part of a pretty funny guy when, deep down, he had serious beliefs. I suspect the only person who really understood Reagan was his wife, Nancy, and maybe his biographer, Lou Cannon.
Barack Obama is still a mystery to many of us and so is Mitt Romney, and I sometimes think they prefer it that way.
The closest thing the Democrats have in the real-person category these days is Vice President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., plain Joe to most of us. Mr. Biden was born in Scranton, a tough city in the heart of Pennsylvania's once-prosperous coal country. His father moved his family to Delaware to find work.
I think it's a little odd that these two real-person politicians, Mr. Biden (Class of 1965) and Mr. Christie (Class of 1984), both graduated from the University of Delaware. Good for the Blue Hens.
You know what you're getting with Mr. Biden. He may at any time pop off with some entirely inappropriate remark. Mr. Christie, on the other hand, doesn't suffer fools (by his definition) gladly. He may just call one of them an idiot, any time, any place.
So here tonight, in the most dramatic moment of his life, we will see Chris Christie, the Jersey boy, striding to the podium to deliver a keynote speech he and the people running this convention hope will set Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, those two fit and carefully programmed candidates, on the road to the White House, and maybe, at the same time, make the case that a fat guy from New Jersey is worth watching further down the road.
It's happened before. No one really knew much about Mr. Obama until he gave a stirring keynote speech in 2004. Mario Cuomo set off fireworks in his speech in 1984. The late Barbara Jordan, a black congresswoman from Texas, thrilled millions of Americans with her keynote speech in 1976. It was the voice, mostly. It was magnificent. Admirers said at the time that if it turned out that God really was a woman, she would sound just like Barbara Jordan.
Most keynote speakers haven't done as well. A young, inexperienced Bill Clinton (the last of the real-person presidents) droned on and on in 1988. When he said, "In conclusion," thousands in the hall burst into applause. One of my favorite keynote speakers was Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, a Michigan Republican and supposedly the finest orator in the House. I have read that he talked to trees in the Michigan woods to rehearse the speech he would give at the 1980 convention that gave us Ronald Reagan. His speech lasted 37 minutes, and Vander Jagt delivered it without a teleprompter or notes. I'd like to see somebody try that today.
Just to set the record straight, I would like to say, in conclusion, that Ronald Reagan was not -- I repeat, was not -- the keynote speaker at the 1964 Republican convention in the Cow Palace in San Francisco, even though you can connect to the Internet and watch Reagan delivering what we are told was the 1964 keynote address. But the speech they are showing was the one Reagan delivered in a TV studio in the final days of the campaign that was so good it set him in motion toward the White House. The keynote speaker in the Cow Palace in 1964 was Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon. Hardly anyone remembers what he said.
The question tonight is, will anyone remember what Chris Christie says?